For those seeking a modern-day young-adult novel with strong parallels to William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, you could certainly do worse than Lucy Christopher’s young-adult novel Storm-wake. In it, we meet Moss, an adolescent girl who is living on an un-named and mysterious island with “Pa”. The unrevealed backdrop is an apparently post-apocalyptic world in which they believe themselves to be the only people left alive after a cataclysmic flood destroyed the world. Indeed, later in the story, Pa mutters half-remembered fragments of the Biblical story of Noah’s ark — but enough of that for now.
Moss inhabits the role of The Tempest’s Ariel, a credulous, naive, and curious young girl almost completely in thrall to Pa’s story-telling and magical abilities. Pa, playing the role of Prospero, seems to be part conjurer, able to summon storms and cast spells, thanks to the island’s storm-flowers, which seem to sing and call out to anyone nearby, asking to be eaten. Indeed, Pa both eats them and makes a drinkable potion from them, and it must be said that they possess a strong, intoxicating effect that, in the end, harbor a darker but not sinister side to them. Still, parents concerned about drugs or alcohol would do well to consider this — even if, in the end, Moss comes to see the storm-flowers’ effect as undesirable and even dangerous.
The two of them have been stranded on this island for an indeterminate period of time, and Pa has convinced Moss that it is his job to send storm-flowers out into the ocean to revive life on the planet. However, the only effect they seem to have is to deliver to the island Aster, a mystical horse that seems to rise up out of the water itself; and Cal, a mysterious “fish-boy” with webbed hands and feet, scaly skin, and luminous green eyes (he would be The Tempest’s Caliban). At first, Cal and Moss forge a strong friendship; she never seems concerned with his appearance — a welcome invitation to readers to be considerate and compassionate to others — but this friendship founders almost literally when they try to sail out to find land, Moss gets injured, and Pa blames Cal for this and hits him. Pa’s “darkness”, as Moss calls it, looms ominously in the background until the novel’s climax.
Cal retreats to a dangerous side of the island, one inhabited by large, carnivorous lizards (which could be Komodo dragons…). In his absence, Moss starts to ponder the stories Pa has told her, and, after his anger at Cal, she starts to doubt what she’s been told. “There is no land left,” Pa has insisted, but Moss is sure that she has seen an island on the horizon. With no boat, and with the island’s mysterious, Lost-like powers, exploration and escape seem impossible. It’s at this point that Moss has her first period, something she was completely unprepared for but handles very well. The book’s description does quite well to make clear the threshold she has crossed without going too far.
However, a violent storm delivers to the island two young men who had been trying to sail around the world. Moss finds and revives one of the boys — Finn — who reveals to her that the rest of the world proceeds unaffected by any floods. Climate change is mentioned, yes, and the world has seven billion people on it, much like the world the book’s readers actually inhabit, and Moss is both amazed and chastened. It seems that Pa’s stories have been false all along, and she starts to doubt everything, including her relationship to Pa, why she’s on the island, and whether she should leave. It’s become clear to her that not everything is as it seems — and she starts to question everything she thought was true. I’ll leave the rest of the plot to you.
In the end, this is a wonderfully written coming-of-age novel that would interest readers interested in fantasy, magic, strong female characters, and utopian literature. It presents at a level that might challenge the “typical” sixth-grade reader. There are allusions to the narcotic effects of the storm-flowers, Finn and his friend utter a few mild swears and , and Finn wonders at one point if he smells ganja (marijuana — but the references are quick and never develop into anything). Readers who have enjoyed the Harry Potter series might find this to be a step up in terms of complexity, but sentence-structure and vocabulary are direct and accessible. There are some darker moments, such as when Pa lashes out at Cal or when Moss experiences a flashback to her childhood before coming to the island, but nothing in it is as dark as, say, The Giver.
This is a book that should not only appeal to most readers but engage them and transport them to Moss’s mysterious island. I found myself carving out time to read, staying up later than normal and bringing it with me whenever I had an appointment so that I could find more time to read. Christopher has woven a bit of a magic spell with the book, all the more fitting for the theme and for Moss’s experience.